Trying to fit a round up of today’s thrilling Chinese GP into a few hundred words is not easy. The race weekend, as with the previous two before it, was always likely to be dominated by tires, but the relative difference in laptime between the two compounds here, surprised even Pirelli.
That speed differential between the two, offered the possibility of varying strategies in the race. We saw the majority of the top runners opting to qualify on the faster, yellow ringed soft tire, giving a faster ultimate single lap time, World Champion Sebastian Vettel was the most prominent driver to try something a little different.
Red Bull Racing’s strategy, initially with both cars, was to save the soft, short-life compound until the end of the race when the cars were lighter and would grip the track more. The compromise is that while running on the medium, durable tire, you’re in the middle of the pack at the start of the race when everyone else is faster and excitable and prone to accidents and traffic.
For Sebastian Vettel, you could say the plan worked. Starting 9th and finishing 4th is a good return and given a couple more corners at the end, he could have stolen 2nd.
One of the most interesting strategies, which we unfortunately didn’t get to see fully play out, was the one that Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber. He was somewhat forced into by the team’s failure to fuel his car correctly in qualifying. Having been sent to the back of the grid for failing to provide a fuel sample to the FIA on Saturday, the team opted to pull the car out of parc ferme overnight and make changes otherwise forbidden under normal conditions…you can’t be sent any further back!
Red Bull were able to set the car up for the race, as apposed to the normal compromise set up to accommodate single lap pace in qualifying. This means they changed gear ratios and aero settings to enable Webber to overtake easier down Shanghai’s long straights, as well as having free choice on their starting tires. Having not completed the full qualifying session, he also had more new tires for the race than everyone else too.
Interestingly, starting last, they opted to start on the soft tire, which everyone knew wouldn’t last more than about 5 laps in the Grand Prix, but rather than run for the 5 laps, he pitted immediately and changed straight onto the preferred medium compound.
This enabled him to get the mandated soft tire phase out of the way without actually losing any track position. He rejoined after his stop, still last, but able to complete the whole race on the better tire and it looked to be a good move. At the point where the front runners were being forced to pit after lap 5 or 6, Webber moved up through the field and was looking like a real contender. The midfield runners who started on the medium tire would have to fit the soft tire at some point, so Webber may have rescued a good opportunity from a dire situation.
Unfortunately a questionable decision on Webber’s part to lunge past a Toro Rosso ended in collision and a forced pitstop for a front wing change. That in itself wasn’t the end of the world, as they were only a couple of laps short of their intended pitstop window, but the pit crew who broke world records last time out in Malaysia, went from hero to zero one race later.
Webber rejoined the race, but half way round his out lap, the right rear wheel detached from the car and his Grand Prix was over. It would have been really interesting to see the result, but that’s Formula One.
There’s been a lot of complaining about tires recently, some of it perhaps justified, but no one can say that today’s race wasn’t fascinating and had an incredible finish, and the Pirellis played a big part in that.
Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.